Zero Sum War Games

How separating soldiers from the theatre of war creates new human costs

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Robert Shepherd

On January 3rd, 2020 the United States killed Qasem Suleimani with an MQ-9 Reaper. This drone is manufactured by General Atomics and operated by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Royal Air Force (England), and the Italian Air Force. The Reaper serves as a powerful mobile aerial weapons platform, often carrying out strikes with the effective and expensive Hellfire missile. Government decision makers tout the drone’s surgically precise capabilities. However, public policy organizations, journalists, and activist groups publish civilian casualty counts that find roughly 1 terrorist death per 50 civilian deaths (Zulaika, Hellfire from Paradise Ranch. 2020). Additionally, the resolution of the screens are actually closer to the vision of someone who is legally blind than the vibrant and clear videogames they are often analogized with. (Gusterson, Drone. 2017).
An additional benefit to the military is that drones can be remotely piloted from the United States, keeping airmen and women at home with their families and their bodies out of harm’s way. However, this separation has developed unintended consequences for the airmen and women that are now “deploying” as a day job. Even though drones are considered a good option by the military because of their “unmanned” nature, they cause tangible human consequences.

I am a cultural Anthropology PhD student at University of Colorado at Boulder. I started studying drone pilots and the surrounding communities for my undergraduate anthropology thesis. Over the course of my research I have interviewed and participated in participant observation with drone pilots and sensor operators, other base members, and base protestors in New York State. I will be returning to New York this summer to continue my research.

Pilot Experiences

Alex (not his real name), a drone pilot for the Air National Guard, informed me that he significantly preferred being deployed to this remote form of warfare. I was confused. Drones were supposed to be the better option for those who wanted to be involved in the war effort, they eliminated the very thing so many families dreaded – Deployment. So then why did Alex switch to serving as a drone pilot? His wife and kids decided it was time for him to have a presence at home.

This was a common thread through many of my interviews with pilots. They preferred being deployed, which allowed them to be part of a community that was experiencing the war with them. They could sit and talk out their experiences and quite literally fight for the guys who were deployed with them. But now that they’re deploying as a day job to a fortified trailer on a base nestled into their community, they can coach their kid in soccer after their shift, they can attend school plays, they can be an active part of the community with their family and friends. While these may seem like perks, and to some they certainly are, separating the warrior from the war causes anxiety and other stresses that were not experienced on deployment and not anticipated on the home front.

Despite the glowing potential of staying stateside, conducting war from home causes problems for the commuting warfighter. In addition to things like night shifts screwing up sleep schedules, pilots have a shortened time frame to switch from using their brain for war and using their brain for domestic activities. Now that individuals are home in time for dinner, what were formerly normal questions such as “How was work?” or “What did you do at work today?” are suddenly loaded. Partners understand that death may be an everyday part of their significant other’s lives, but the understanding has not changed the still present barrier to conversations. Pilots are hesitant to talk about their days for a variety of reasons, and partners feel a disconnect with their pilots that they did not when the pilots were fighting war from a plane (Lee, Reaper Force. 2018).

Another interesting experience that pilots discussed with me was their sudden paranoia. It was not always evident in conversation with them that it was what they were discussing but became apparent when reviewing the interview. For example, one pilot told me that he always tried to mix up his commute in case he was being followed. Followed by who? He didn’t know, it was just in case. Another pilot told me he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being followed by a drone. Some pilots started to dream in infrared. Other pilots do not seem to have the same reactions and told me that they are satisfied with their job and the work/life balance it allows. The bag is pretty mixed, but for a system that is “unmanned”, it has visceral implications for the men and women who operate them. The ability to create 24/7 intelligence from the sky over other countries is taking a toll on the people that remain in the United States when part of the war effort.

U.S. Community Experiences

Communities around drone bases in the United States have mobilized in reaction to the extensive use of drones. The protests at places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and the 174th Attack Wing in Syracuse, New York demonstrate these communities’ discontent with the continued use of militarized drones. The protestors are not quiet about their stance and are known for being arrested if they cross the street to the base side of the road. The protests in New York happen biweekly during the summer and are strategically timed for shift change in front of the gate, making them especially disruptive. The protestors informed me that this technique ensured that as many pilots and sensor operators as possible could see that what they are doing is illegal in international law.

However, the war is not the only anxiety that the protestors have about drones. A 50 mile corridor in upstate New York was recently approved to be a testing ground for private and military drone technology. The activists are concerned that the relatively lax rules about drones and the testing of them will evolve into issues around privacy and surveillance on U.S. soil. Protestors also have physical safety concerns living in an area used to test drones. In 2013 a MQ-9 Reaper crashed into Lake Ontario after suffering a software problem shortly after take off from Fort Drum, NY.

If concerns about unknown pilots and technology flying above you sounds familiar, it might be because of the recent spotlight on the mystery drones flying over Colorado and Nebraska communities. The threat of an unknown watcher has disturbed communities and prompted questions such as: Who is flying them? What do they want? Feeling that the government has not done enough to quell public questions and concerns, groups of drone hunters have mobilized to solve the mystery themselves, some of which I have joined to study community reactions to the mystery drones.

Global Community Experiences

Understanding the experience of Americans and drone technology has been the primary focus of my research simply because it is who I have been exposed to through interviews and participant observation. However, there are other people who are impacted by drone strikes. And besides the death toll, the drones have created unintended cultural consequences in the communities they fly over.

Individuals on the ground in North Waziristan, an area in Pakistan on the receiving end of hundreds, if not thousands, of drone strikes, have become self proclaimed “psychiatric patients” because of the continuous drone presence and threat of strike. The drones are not the only problem in these communities. In some areas of Pakistan it was reported that after strikes the Taliban would move through the community and try to determine who were the “spies” on the ground working for the CIA. This has lead to community members being detained and tortured for confessions of compliance and information feeding to the CIA.

Drone strikes have also changed the way people in areas prone to strikes congregate. Community members have shifted cultural practices that they believe attract the attention of drone pilots. Journalists and human rights activists have noticed changes in funerary and burial practices, weddings, and even the way children are educated (Gusterson, Drone. 2017). Parents that have children in areas where drone strikes occur will keep their kids at home with them, and in other cases children are too traumatized by the drone strikes to go to school (Gusterson, Drone. 2017).

Drone warfare presents an interesting case study for anthropologists. There are many angles and capacities to interact with communities who are impacted by drones, whether it is the pilot communities themselves, activists and protestors, or the communities where the power of drone technologies are enacted. However, by studying drone pilots I have noticed disturbing connections in other, everyday areas of our lives. In recent exposés, both Facebook and YouTube moderators have come forward reporting similar problems to that of drone pilots: high work-related stress, PTSD, alcoholism, drug use, and dysfunction in their sex life. This indicates that the professional voyeurs in the United States, both in a military application and also the world of our smartphone apps and social media, are put in a position of physical separation from the content they are viewing and moderating, yet are experiencing very real and traumatizing outcomes in their own lives. Separation is not always a solution. As we move into an increasingly digital and automated world, we should be wary of the unintended consequences of our reliance on the optimism around technological innovation and separation as a solution for our problems, from war fighting to interactions on social media.
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